Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Alexander Hawkins’

Cats, herded

Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker (photo: Dawid Laskowski)

Organising free improvisers might seem like a fool’s task. Why would the special breed of players who spend their lives resolutely creating music from scratch suddenly want to submit to the will of a composer? Nevertheless, history proves that sometimes it works: notable successes were recorded by Michael Mantler with the original Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Alexander von Schlippenbach with his Globe Unity Orchestra and Barry Guy with the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra. Each project depended to some extent on the leader/composer’s familiarity with the techniques of contemporary European straight music, but the idea was given new impetus with the introduction of the looser and perhaps more organic-to-the-idiom technique of “conduction”, pioneered by the late Butch Morris and pursued by George Lewis and Tyshawn Sorey, among others. Slightly to one side were the adventures of the British duo Ashley Wales and John Coxon, known as Spring Heel Jack, who created stimulating modern environments for many individual improvisers, including Wadada Leo Smith and John Tchicai.

The first sound heard on Togetherness Music: For Sixteen Musicians, Alexander Hawkins’ new album, is that of Evan Parker’s soprano saxophone, unwinding its always surprising coils of sound, the seemingly unbroken skeins of notes punctuated by split-second darts and lurches into other registers. As usual, it’s exhilarating and mesmerising, particularly when the sound of the isolated soprano blooms with reverberation, which may or may not be the natural property of Challow Park Studios in Oxfordshire, where the set was recorded. But then Hawkins introduces his other resources: the five string players of the Riot Ensemble and nine other musicians, including the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, the saxophonist and flautist Rachel Musson, the cellist Hannah Marshall, the bassist Neil Charles, the drummer Mark Sanders, and Matthew Wright on electronics, all conducted by Aaron Hollway-Nahum. Gradually they add sombre pedal-points, heightening the atmosphere before Parker drops out and the strings begin to slip and slide until the piece ends, after almost 10 minutes, with several of them holding a tentative D natural.

Sanders and Pursglove are the next to get the concerto grosso for improvisers treatment, a layer of restless percussion under the silvery trumpet continuing into a dialogue with written lines for flute/bass clarinet and viola/cello. On the third piece Parker returns for a pointilliste conversation with Hawkins’ scrambling piano in which the Riot Ensemble make their full presence known, soaring and churning as the music holds itself together through some mysterious centripetal force.

Hawkins, the 16th musician, is featured on the fourth piece, against a walking line played by two basses (Charles and Marianne Schofield) and possibly one of the two cellos, too. Showing the pianist at his most inventive and hyper-alert, it has the loping gait and harmonically ambiguous flavour of the music created by young Cecil Taylor and the bassist with his early groups, Buell Neidlinger, before Parker pipes up with a reminder of another early Taylor collaborator, Steve Lacy, in a passage of ensemble agitation that resolves into an elegant, ruminative diminuendo.

The strings dominate the fifth piece, a collective statement in which the individual instruments glide around each other as if in mismatched orbits, the fine details of tone and timbre revealed within an aural space that feels busy yet uncluttered. The sixth and final composition opens with a trio of Charles, Sanders and Wright, bass and drums working around light electronic taps, thuds and crackles. Pursglove and Hawkins emerge with staccato trumpet figures and a purposefully wandering single-note piano line, continuing as Sanders briefly dominates with thrashing brushwork before the other musicians reappear in a crescendo of exultant sound. A graceful withdrawal gives the last word to Parker and Hawkins, two improvisers who share a near-infallible instinct for an ending.

The six pieces are titled, in order, “Indistinguishable from Magic”, “Sea No Shore”, “Ensemble Equals Together”, “Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher”, “Ecstatic Baobabs” and “Optimism of the Will”. I’ve described them in such details because the more you listen, the more distinctive they become: each one a living organism with its own cellular structure, texture and micro-climate. I’ve said before that Hawkins has a rare understanding of how to combine composition and improvisation, and here, in this very special recording, we have a perfect example of his gift.

Perhaps I’ve found Togetherness Music particularly valuable because I’ve missed attending live performances of free improvisation very much over the past year. Recordings of small groups, however excellent, aren’t the same thing as hearing and seeing this music conjured in front of you. But by framing improvisation so creatively, Hawkins brings it to life in a different way.

* Alexander Hawkins’ Togetherness Music is out now on the Intakt label (www.intaktrec.ch)

Sounds from the silence

The challenge of putting on a jazz festival in November 2020 would be hard to overestimate. But for four days last week the 57th edition of Jazzfest Berlin presented music to the world with imagination and ingenuity, making the most of the available technology to bring musicians and listeners together in the era of social distancing.

The event’s customary home, the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, is currently being refurbished, so the festival’s director, Nadin Deventer, built a digital bridge between her alternative choice of home venue, Silent Green (a repurposed crematorium in the Wedding district), and the Roulette club in Brooklyn. Bands played in both spaces, alternating sets. Forty separate performances totalled 1,500 minutes of music, all of it broadcast via the ARTE Concerts network (and available to view for the next 12 months).

So, for instance, from Berlin we got to hear two of the expatriate American drummer Jim Black’s groups, a trio and a sextet, and the saxophonist Silke Eberhard’s expanded Potsa Lotsa band playing pieces by Henry Threadgill, who was to have been the festival’s special guest until the pandemic made physical travel from the US impossible. From Brooklyn we heard the intense saxophone/piano duo of Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis, the drummer Thomas Fujiwara’s sextet, with Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Mary Halvorson on guitar, the altoist Lakecia Benjamin paying homage to Coltrane, and the pianist Craig Taborn’s new trio, with Halvorson and the drummer Ches Smith. And many others in both locations.

The set that nailed my attention was a 57-minute composition/performance by the British pianist Alexander Hawkins and the Berlin-based Lebanese poet, rapper and visual artist Siska, whose collaboration had to overcome the enforced inability of Hawkins and his two UK-based collaborators, Matt Wright (electronics) and Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet), to travel to Berlin. Instead they recorded their contributions to the piece, with Siska, the trumpeter Lina Allemano and the bassist Nick Dunston located in Silent Green and improvising on the template of Hawkins’s graphic and notated score, with the occasional appearance of film of First and Third World scenes and social rituals on a suspended screen sharing the space with the musicians and a large mirror ball used as a reflective light source.

The recent explosion in Beirut, Siska said, had inspired him to use Arabic lyrics he had written in the Lebanese capital between 2001 and 2008. Allemano contributed strikingly expressive interludes and accompaniments, while Dunston provided sonorous arco playing, a fluid drive when necessary and, to introduce the final section, a memorable solo of his own.

The composition began with plain electronic drones and overtones like something from a La Monte Young installation or a Necks studio album. Slowly unrolling through passages supported by prepared gamelan-like patterns, a clarinet ostinato and the whirring of a 16mm projector, it gradually gained emotional weight until achieving something very like catharsis in its closing passages: imagine, if you can, a fruitful meeting between the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Arthur Jafa, with a global perspective. If the meaning of Siska’s urgently whispered and muttered words was inscrutable to non-Arabic speakers, the accretional impact of the whole work was undeniable, at least in this corner of the digital auditorium. Here it is.

* To see recordings of all the livestreamed performances from Jazzfest Berlin 2020, go to https://www.arte.tv/de/videos/RC-020309/jazzfest-berlin/

Riot in Dalston

Riot in Dalston

There are many worthwhile things going on in jazz at the moment, and one of them is the collaboration with open-minded young musicians from the straight world. Last night at Cafe Oto there were two such efforts, both featuring an eight-piece contingent from the Riot Ensemble, a London-based group who might be compared, I suppose, to Berlin’s Stargaze Orchestra.

The first half of the evening began with two members of the ensemble, Ausiàs Garrigós on bass clarinet and Amy Green on baritone saxophone, playing a fully composed piece called ‘We Speak Etruscan’, written 20 years ago by Lee Hyla, a New York composer who died in 2014. Beautifully conceived as two voices twirling around each other, it was performed with an irresistible momentum and a virtuosity that left plenty of room for the human sound of the instruments.

Then came the other members of the group — Mandira de Saram and Marie Schreer (violins), Jenny Ames (viola), Louise McMonagle (cello), Marianne Schofield (double bass) and Sam Wilson (percussion) — to play a sequence of pieces by Alexander Hawkins, conducted by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, with Hawkins on piano and Evan Parker on soprano saxophone. Parker led off with unaccompanied solo, quietly joined by the strings and a bowed vibraphone, holding a cloud-like chord. Already the textures were new and gorgeous.

The four pieces making the continuous sequence could be played in any order, discreetly cued by the conductor. The music shifted tone and weight constantly, using extended instrumental techniques (including one fantastic passage of drifting harmonics from the strings), and occasionally making space for solos, including one from Hawkins in which he used devices on the piano’s strings to get a kalimba effect. The music was intense and rarified, but never overbearing.

The Riot Ensemble musicians returned for the second half, this time to work with the trio known as ENEMY — Kit Downes on piano, Petter Eldh on bass and James Maddren on drums — on pieces written and arranged by Downes and Eldh. This was a very different formula: much more predetermined, much more vertical and horizontal structure, but enormously dynamic and involving, and greatly appreciated by the audience.

Everything played at Cafe Oto is professionally recorded. This was one of those nights when you leave with the hope that what you’ve just heard will eventually be released, so that you can enjoy it again and think about it some more.

Ten cheers for Cafe Oto

Cafe OtoIf I were given the freedom to design a place at which people could gather for the purpose of playing and hearing music, it would probably end up very much like Cafe Oto. Some of the Dalston venue’s features include an entrance straight off an interesting side street, chairs and tables on the pavement for use during the intervals between sets, large picture windows to give passers-by a glimpse of the goings-on inside, an informal and intimate performance space with no stage, with discreet lighting and perfect sound, a good piano, the option to sit or stand, unselfconscious interaction between musicians and listeners, excellent refreshments, bike parking. And, most important, an audience equipped with open ears and minds, not drawn from a single demographic.

Some of the best musicians in the world can be heard at Cafe Oto, usually for not much more than a tenner, and the atmosphere is such that I’ve never seen any of these distinguished figures — including Roscoe Mitchell, Marc Ribot, Annette Peacock, John Tchicai, the Necks and Louis Moholo-Moholo — give less than their absolute best. Maybe I’ve just been lucky in that respect, but I doubt it. In such ideal surroundings for improvised or otherwise adventurous music, what kind of musician would fail to produce a wholehearted response?

Cafe Oto is currently celebrating its 10th birthday, and two recent events fully illustrated its position in London’s creative musical life. The first was the latest of the club’s three-day residencies, this one granted to the pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins, whose breadth of knowledge and interests guaranteed that he would make the most of the opportunity to stretch out and create a diverse programme.

Alex Hawkins + 4

I went on the second night, opened by Hawkins in duets with the tenor saxophone of Evan Parker. Over the course of almost an hour the music came from many tangents and explored several different modes of collaboration: matched invention, accompaniment, dovetailing, even collision. For the second set (see photograph above) they were joined by Orphy Robinson (Xylosynth), Pat Thomas (Theremin-synthesiser), and Matthew Wright (laptop and turntable). Parker switched to soprano, and there were times when it seemed as though the others were providing a setting for him. Nothing to do with ego: that’s just how the music settled. The textures were fascinating and often beguiling, particularly when Robinson was using a bass-marimba effect to provide a slowly tolling background pulse. I was sorry to miss the third night, when Hawkins’s guests included the marvellous drummer Gerry Hemingway.

Ingrid Laubrock 4 2

This week it was the turn of Ingrid Laubrock, the German-born saxophonist who came to London in 1989 to study at the Guildhall and stayed for almost 20 years before moving to Brooklyn in 2008. The first band she formed there, Anti-House 4, with Kris Davis on piano, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tom Rainey on drums, played at Cafe Oto on Monday and Tuesday; they stunned everyone present with the impact of music which is carefully wrought but retains the best qualities of free improvisation. I was so struck by the first night’s music that I booked myself straight back in for a second helping.

Each of the individuals is a virtuoso. Laubrock now belongs in the very highest class of improvising saxophonists, blending outright ferocity with hints of the elegance absorbed from her study of Warne Marsh. Davis has a lot of Cecil Taylor in the bones of her playing, but she also makes me think instinctively of George Russell’s piano playing: those beautiful stretched arpeggios, sometimes broken, sometimes in contrary motion, enunciated with a touch poised between firm and hard, like a 2H pencil. Rainey is a master drummer who can make playing with a stick in his right hand and a beer bottle in his left seem the most logical of propositions. And Halvorson is in such command of the promptings of her remarkable imagination that, as her lines and chords slip and warp and overlap, she can convince you that there must be a second guitarist hidden away somewhere (at different times I imagined that phantom alter ego to be Derek Bailey, Link Wray or Kenny Burrell).

But it was as a collective that they left their deepest impression, thanks to Laubrock’s developing gift as an organiser of music. Her compositions are complex but seldom sound that way: there is no twiddling. The occasional hurtling unison passage grows naturally out of the improvisations, while the endings are often deliciously unexpected. One piece ended a couple of brief, cryptic phrases, guitar following piano, dissolving into silence, as if the music’s final traces had been blown away by a last puff of wind. That was every bit as dramatic as the piece with which they opened the first night: a sequence of violent stabs of sound that would have put any death-metal band to shame.

The second night began with unaccompanied improvisations from all four players, and it is a sign of the strength of the quartet’s character that this sequence never sounded like a series of solos. Even when only one person was playing, the music was that of a band — part of an overall scheme that has taken 10 years to emerge as something genuinely extraordinary, and whose fruition was enthusiastically appreciated by the audience. Perfect, of course, for Cafe Oto, one of those rare spaces that go beyond the simple function of presentation to achieve something more valuable, by providing encouragement and inspiration to creative musicians. In other words, a home.

‘Goal by Garrincha’

Club Inégales

It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, that music in praise of football and footballers tends to concentrate on South Americans — I’m thinking of Jorge Ben’s “Filho Maravilha” and “Ponte de Lança Africano” and Manu Chao’s great song in celebration of Diego Maradona, “La Vida Tombola”. Alexander Hawkins’s “Unequal Baobabs (Goal by Garrincha)” is something different on the same subject.

The piece was given its debut in London last night as part of Expect the Unexpected, a two-night affair in which 25 composers were each invited to submit a one-page score to be performed, without rehearsal,  by the band of Club Inégales, led by Peter Wiegold. Part of the EFG London Jazz Festival, the second night in this basement bar off Euston Road featured pieces by Alice Zawadzki, Orphy Robinson, Mark Sanders, Matthew Bourne, Pat Thomas and others, interpreted by a 13-piece ensemble of improvising musicians — an expanded version of Wiegold’s regular band, Notes Inégales.

I had a particular interest in Hawkins’s piece since its existence is the indirect result of a conversation we had a couple of years ago, on the subject of football, during which I recommended a book by the Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano called Football in Sun and Shadow, published in an English translation 20 years ago. Galeano’s brief chapters include one called “Goal by Garrincha”, in which he described the effect of a particularly dramatic strike by the great Brazilian winger during a World Cup warm-up match against Fiorentina in 1958.

Hawkins’s score consists of eight “cells” of note sequences, with written instructions such as “Proceed at own rate; no need to synchronise” and “Any cell may be transposed into any octave”. Galeano’s words were read by Zawadzki, who was also playing violin and singing in the group, and by Notes Inégales’ regular percussionist, Simon Limbrick. The piece began with a drone on G and ended after about 20 minutes with all the instruments sustaining their highest possible pitch, at minimal volume. “Hold this final drone for as long as we dare,” Hawkins instructed, “and even then a little longer.”

I meant to ask the composer if he’d also read Ruy Castro’s classic biography of Garrincha, where the author describes the other Brazilian players’ reaction to the goal — in which the player dribbled past the entire Fiorentina side before making a fool of the goalkeeper as he scored. Garrincha’s team mates refused to celebrate with him and were bitterly critical afterwards, complaining that any attempt to repeat such an individualistic feat during the World Cup itself would risk damaging their chances of winning the trophy (which they did, of course).

Football and jazz: both are completely dependent on improvisation, individual and collective, on players with a sense of adventure and possibility but also with a sensitivity to the potential of their colleagues. The two hours of music I was able to hear last night, featuring pieces by Robinson, Sanders, Zawadzki and Helen Pappaioannou as well as Hawkins’s contribution, was full of those qualities. I particularly enjoyed the playing of Hyelim Kim on the taegum (a Korean bamboo flute), Jackie Shave on violin, Ben Markland on bass guitar, Torbjörn Hultmark on trumpet and Chris Starkey, whose interventions on an orange plastic-bodied Airline electric guitar were often startling and always stimulating.

The moods ranged from the refined beauty of Zawadzki’s “In an Old Theatre” through a strange almost-irony in Sanders’ variations on “What a Wonderful World” to the broad humour of Robinson’s piece, whose changes of direction were indicated by the composer via commands displayed on his iPad, the last of which instructed the musicians to blame each other. For once, post-match recriminations were not confined to the dressing room.

Jazz in Britain, Part 1

Jazz in Britain 1The title of this two-part series is a homage to John Muir, a friend of 40-odd years ago. As a BBC radio producer, Muir saved John Peel’s career at the corporation in 1968 by giving him a Radio 1 show called Night Ride. He also booked Roxy Music for their first broadcast on Sounds of the Seventies, and supervised a series titled Jazz in Britain, devoted to the emerging generation of John Stevens, John Surman, Tony Oxley, Trevor Watts, Howard Riley and so on. John died recently, aged 80. I thought of him as being the best kind of BBC person: calm, civilised, culturally literate and unobtrusively fearless. Here are eight new albums by artists he would certainly have booked for a series of Jazz in Britain in 2017. Together they demonstrate that we are experiencing a new golden age of British jazz.

Binker & Moses: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox). Dem Ones, a first album of duets for tenor saxophone and drums by Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, deservedly won praise and awards last year. This follow-up starts in a similar vein, with a further disc of two-part inventions, even more confident and assured. But the second disc is where things get really interesting as they add guests in various permutations. Byron Wallen (trumpet), Evan Parker (saxophones), Tori Handsley (harp), Sarathy Korwar (tabla) and Yussef Dayes (drums) join Golding and Boyd on a trip through tones and textures, creating a beautifully spacious set of improvisations, uncluttered but full of interest. The exotic titles suggest some kind of fantastical narrative is going on, but the music tells its own story.

Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH). Another two-disc set, its first half consisting of seven pieces recorded last October by Hawkins’s excellent and now disbanded sextet, featuring Shabaka Hutchings (reeds), Otto Fischer (guitar), Dylan Bates (violin), Neil Charles (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums). “[K]now”, featuring a recitation by Fischer, is a highlight. The second disc consists of pieces recorded this January by a 13-piece ensemble in which Hawkins, Bates, Fischer and Charles are joined by others including Laura Jurd, Percy Pursglove and Nick Malcolm (trumpets), Julie Kjaer (flutes and reeds), Alex Ward (clarinet), Hannah Marshall (cello) and Matthew Wright (electronics). This is dense but open-weave music, containing a composed element but sounding almost wholly improvised and writhing with invention. It’s on Hawkins’s own label (information at http://www.alexanderhawkinsmusic.com) and it’s outstanding.

Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Naim). A friend of mine describes this as “Silent Way-era Miles w/Arabic textures”, which is a fair summary. Yazz, her quarter-tone trumpet and her fine octet are investigating ways of blending jazz with the music of Bahrain, her parents’ country. At a late-night concert in Berlin last November the audience didn’t know them and they didn’t know the audience, but after an hour the musicians were able to walk away in triumph. Dudley Phillips’s bass guitar and Martin France’s drums keep the grooves light and crisp, Lewis Wright’s vibes solos are always a pleasure, and the combination of Yazz’s trumpet or flugelhorn with Shabaka Hutchings’s bass clarinet gives the ensemble a pungent and distinctive character.

Olie Brice Quintet: Day After Day (Babel). I love this band, led by a brilliant bassist and completed by Alex Bonney (cornet), Mike Fletcher (alto), George Crowley (tenor) and Jeff Williams (drums). What it has is the loose-limbed fluidity I associate with the New York Contemporary Five, the band that included Don Cherry, John Tchicai and Archie Sheep, with just a hint of Albert Ayler’s Bells ensemble. But it’s not derivative. It’s a continuation, and a worthwhile one. Brice’s own playing is exceptionally strong (he can make me think of Wilbur Ware, Henry Grimes and Jimmy Garrison), his compositions provide the perfect platform for the horns, and Williams swings at medium tempo with such easy grace that you could think you were listening to Billy Higgins.

Denys Baptiste: The Late Trane (Edition). Almost 50 years after John Coltrane’s death, there is no real consensus about the music of his last two years, when the turbulent spirituality took over and blurred the outlines that had been so clear on A Love Supreme and Crescent. Baptiste takes a conservative approach to the late material, enlisting a fine band — Nikki Yeoh (keyboards), Neil Charles or Gary Crosby (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums), with the great Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone) on a couple of tracks — to support his own tenor and soprano on Trane’s tunes (including “Living Space” and “Dear Lord”) and a couple of originals. Rather than taking them further out, he draws them nearer in through the subtle application of more recent styles, including funk, reggae and a touch of electronics. The sincerity of the homage is never in doubt.

Chris Biscoe / Allison Neale: Then and Now (Trio). One of the unsung heroes of British jazz since his arrival as a promising saxophonist with NYJO in the early ’70s, Biscoe sticks to the baritone instrument on this release, joined by Neale’s alto saxophone as they explore the mood of the albums Gerry Mulligan made with Paul Desmond in the late ’50s and early ’60s. With Colin Oxley’s guitar, Jeremy Brown’s bass and Stu Butterfield’s drums in support, the approach is deceptively relaxed: this music may not bear the burden of innovation but it demands high standards of execution and integrity. The intricate improvised counterpoint on “The Way You Look Tonight” refracts Mulligan/Desmond through the Tristano prism.

Freddie Gavita: Transient (Froggy). Fans of the Hubbard/Hancock/Shorter era of the Blue Note label would enjoy investigating the debut by this young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and NYJO, the possessor of a beautifully rounded tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn. His shapely compositions hit a series of fine and varied grooves, lubricated by Tom Cawley’s piano, Calum Gourlay’s bass and James Maddren’s drums. The obvious comparison, for Blue Note adherents, is Empyrean Isles: not such a terrible thing with which to be compared, is it?

The Runcible Quintet: Five (FMR). Recorded live in April at the Iklectik club in Lambeth, this is music in the tradition of the Karyobin-era Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which means that Neil Metcalfe (flute), Adrian Northover (soprano saxophone), Daniel Thompson (acoustic guitar), John Edwards (bass) and Marcello Magliocchi (drums) require sharp ears, focused empathy, fast reflexes and a command of extended instrumental techniques. It’s funny to think that this tradition is only two or three years younger than those heavily referenced in some of the preceding records, but in such capable hands as these it retains its ability to startle and provoke. Edwards, as always, is staggering.

* Part 2 of this Jazz in Britain series will deal with reissues.

Sun Ra touches down in NW8

Sun Ra Alex HEveryone has their own Sun Ra. Mine is the one who made the Heliocentric Worlds albums for the ESP label in the mid-’60s, and whom I saw a few times in the early ’70s — at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Festival Hall and the Village Gate. Jez Nelson, the host of the monthly Jazz in the Round series at the Cockpit Theatre, had barely heard of him before interviewing him for Jazz FM in 1990, but quickly embraced the whole Sun Ra trip and gave us some lovely stories at the tribute evening he organised on Monday, as did Gilles Peterson, who came along with a bag full of rare Ra vinyl to play in the bar during the interval.

The first of the evening’s two performances was by Alexander Hawkins, who has studied Ra’s piano work and gave us a solo sequence at an upright instrument stripped of its casing. He begins with gentle strums of the strings and proceeded through a many-hued tapestry of Ra forms and sounds, with Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” at its heart, occasionally cutting to brief snatches of boogie-woogie figuration with great dramatic and emotional impact, and finishing by quietly singing the refrain of “We Travel the Spaceways”. Hawkins is now among the front rank of today’s improvising pianists and this was a stirring demonstration of his sensitivity to the tradition and its exponents.

Sun Ra PathwaysAfter Peterson’s DJ set came Where Pathways Meet, a nine-piece band comprising Axel Kaner-Lidstrom (trumpet), Joe Elliot (alto), James Mollison (tenor), Amané Suganami (keyboards and electronics), Maria Osuchowska (electric harp), Mark Mollison (guitar), Mutale Shashi (bass guitar), Jake Long (drums) and Kianja Harvey Elliot (voice). Named after a Sun Ra tune, and dedicated to making music animated by a reverence for his spirit, they went about their work with energy and enthusiasm. Any rawness in the execution seemed unimportant by comparison with the good feeling they imparted.

This was a perfect example of what Jazz in the Round, which takes place on the last Monday of each month, has to offer: a selection of interesting musicians at different stages of their careers performing in close proximity to a respectful audience consisting of old listeners and new listeners and some in between, all sharing a 360-degree experience. The next one, on May 29, features the harpist Alina Bzhezhinska playing the music of Alice Coltrane, a new band called Project M led by the bassist Dan Casimir, and a solo set from Cath Roberts on baritone saxophone. Presented in a small, unpretentious setting by a warm and knowledgable host, it’s my favourite gig these days, by a long way.

* Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, celebrated last weekend’s Record Store Day by releasing an EP with Sun Ra playing solo piano in the Jazz FM studio in 1990 on one side, plus Jez Nelson’s interview on the other. It’s a limited edition, but you might still find one if you hurry.

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

Musica franca

Evan & Alex 1 Alexander Hawkins and Evan Parker were two of the winners at the recent Parliamentary jazz awards: the former for being the instrumentalist of the year, the latter for, well, being Evan Parker. Last week they appeared together at the Vortex. Alex is 35; Evan is 72. What they gave us was a demonstration of the special ability of jazz-based free improvisation to span the generations without forcing the younger man to play the older man’s music, or vice versa. Musica franca = lingua franca, you might say.

I heard one and a half sets. The first reminded me of what those famous Cecil Taylor quintet tracks on Into the Hot, “Pots” and “Bulbs”, might have sounded like if you’d taken out Jimmy Lyons, Henry Grimes and Sunny Murray, leaving only Taylor and Archie Shepp. Evan was a little gruffer than usual, while Alex produced octave-doubled figures that leapt and darted with precise aim. The whole 40-odd minutes sounded like two painters working their brushes in rapid up-strokes. It was urgent and practically unstoppable — until they contrived the most elegant of endings.

The first half of the second set was more mellow and discursive, with a stronger sense of an underlying blues tonality, putting me in mind of how Charlie Rouse and Thelonious Monk might have sounded without a rhythm section. I don’t usually like this shorthand way of writing about music, by describing one musician in terms of another. But those comparisons were what went through my head when I was listening, and they’re only intended in the most impressionistic sense.

Anyway, you can hear for yourselves what they sound like, in all the many dimensions that they bring to their dialogue through a quite magical degree of empathy, in a very fine CD called Leaps in Leicester, recorded last year at Embrace Arts in that city. A long track called “The Shimmy”, dedicated to the late Tony Marsh, contains powerful elements of the approach I heard in the first set.

During the interval they joked that, given the recent success of Leicester’s football team, they should plan a European tour to take in all the places where City are drawn to play in next season’s Champions’ League. Which, who knows, might mean a gig in Cardiff next May, to coincide with the final. (Anyone who finds analogies between jazz and football frivolous or distasteful is directed to an observation by Jean-Luc Godard, who said that listening to free jazz reminded him of the great Hungarian side of the 1950s. So maybe the best comparison is between Evan Parker and Ferenc Puskás. I can’t imagine Evan objecting to that.)

* Leaps in Leicester is out now on the Clean Feed label.

Jazz in the Round

Jazz in the Round 1Jez Nelson’s monthly Jazz in the Round nights at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone are as good a way to hear improvised music in London as anyone has yet devised. A couple of hundred listeners settle themselves down in mini-bleachers on all four sides of the floor, where the musicians set up to face each other, creating an unusual degree of intimacy radiating through 360 degrees. As a member of Empirical — I think it was Nathaniel Facey, the alto saxophonist — told last night’s audience, it makes you play differently. In a good way.

Facey and his colleagues kicked off what turned out to be a special night even by the standards of this excellent series. The evening was being recorded for transmission (on March 28) as the last-ever Jazz on 3, which Nelson presents, and after 18 years he was understandably emotional as he introduced a bill handpicked to represent the programme’s philosophy over the years. After Empirical came Django Bates, who gave the solo performance that traditionally separates the evening’s two bands, followed by a set of free improvisation from a multi-generational quartet assembled specially for this event: Laura Jurd (trumpet), Alexander Hawkins (piano), Orphy Robinson (marimba) and Evan Parker (tenor saxophone).

Empirical were coming off a week of thrice-daily gigs in a pop-up revue at Old Street tube station: a wheeze that apparently worked as well as it deserved to, attracting crowds of passers-by intrigued by what they heard. They’re an exceptional band and they played a fine set of striking new compositions by each of the four members, ending with “Lethe”, a quietly beautiful slow tune by the vibraphonist Lewis Wright. I’ve heard them play it before, and it stuck in my head. I was delighted to hear it again, and to discover that it’s on their new album, Connection.

Bates had just arrived from Switzerland, where he is a professor of jazz at Bern’s University of the Arts. He began by singing, to his own deft kalimba accompaniment, a little song about the anxiety of a man introducing himself to a piano (which turns out to be female). Then he sat down at the keyboard to play a piece in which he doubled his improvised single-note lines in the treble register with whistling of virtuoso standard. A tenor horn solo preceded a final stint at the keyboard, which included some gorgeous gospel figurations and a song about a London pub transformed by a developer into empty luxury apartments. “Empty luxury,” he repeated, sotto voce but with emphasis.

The members of the final improvising group were chosen to show how Jazz on 3 has always reflected the way this music spans the generations, with the accent on new developments. They had never played together as a unit, but the shared qualities of musicianship and sensitivity ensured that they created a genuine conversation that not only gripped their listeners but enfolded them in the act of creation. It was, as Nelson pointed out, the best possible way to demonstrate that, in the hands of such people, the music’s future is safe.

* The photograph of Empirical at the Cockpit Theatre was taken by Steven Cropper, and is used by kind permission. His blog, with more of his fine images, is at http://www.transientlife.uk. Jazz on 3 will be replaced on BBC Radio 3 by Jazz Now, presented by Soweto Kinch. Jez Nelson’s Somethin’ Else will be on Jazz FM on Saturday nights from April 2. Jazz in the Round takes place on the last Monday of each month: http://www.thecockpit.org.uk/show/jazz_in_the_round_0.